Walter Steffens: Guernica And Other Paintings

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Steffens takes with utmost seriousness the transcribing of music from paintings. The results are fascinating and can hold the attention without fore-knowledge that what you...
Steffens takes with utmost seriousness the transcribing of music from paintings. The results are fascinating and can hold the attention without fore-knowledge that what you hear began as something seen by the composer.


STEFFENS Guernica 1. Siguiriya 2. Pintura del Mundo 3. Le Cantique des Cantiques 4 1 Janos Kulka, cond; 1 Rainer Schmidt (va); 1 NW German PO; 2 Helmut Franz, cond; 2 N German RCh; 3 Klause Weise, cond; 3 N German RSO; 4 Friedhelm Flamme (org) LABOR LAB7084 (77:43)

Walter Steffens (b.1934) has written more than 80 works based on (inspired by, conversing with, paraphrasing) paintings. These are among many other works—the desultory Wikipedia article describes him as specializing in opera—and this disc offers a highly diverse selection of these painting-inspired pieces. The booklet notes, understandably, offer a variety of descriptions of Steffens’ response to the pictures, as, in truth, it is impossible to “hear” the pictures in the music. But, then, can one hear the particular Rothko paintings that inspired Morton Feldman to write Rothko Chapel , or Böcklin’s painting in Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead ? Of course not; that isn’t the point. What the works on this disc do is provide fascinating commentaries on the pictures.

By far the most substantial of these is Le Cantique des Cantiques , based on the five paintings by Marc Chagall collectively titled thus, and laid out as a symphony for organ in five movements plus a prologue which together run for some 40 minutes. Whether the work is a “symphony” or not is a rather tired question. It strikes me as a set of meditations, such as one would hear from Messiaen. Of course the shadow of Messiaen must loom very large over anyone proposing to write organ music today, and it is to Steffens’s credit that he seems to have assimilated this influence (and others: Bach, obviously) and created his own music. As he is responding to Chagall’s pictures, he is obliged to risk comparison as one of the paintings meditates on “I Sleep, But My Heart Is Awake” (one of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jésus ). On the other hand, perhaps the fact that “Love is [as] strong as death” is one of the mottoes of Stockhausen’s Momente weighed less heavily. As it is, Steffens’ cycle is very satisfyingly structured at both the macro scale—the juxtaposition of different pieces—as well as the micro scale—the variation within each piece. The prologue (“Hear, O Israel”) encapsulates, in its call-and-response structure, the variation between forceful assertive music and quiet reflective music that characterizes the whole cycle. The first piece, “Awaken O North Wind,” is one large composed crescendo (a palpable awakening), while the second and fourth pieces are essentially meditative pieces (the first of these on “I Sleep…”). The third (“In the Day of His Espousals,” i.e., his wedding day) provides a dramatic foil to the pieces on either side, while the last (“Love Is Strong as Death”) is a tremendous pitting of the relentlessness of love against the finality of death (as I take it). The CD is worth acquiring just for this work. It receives a stunning performance from Friedhelm Flamme, and the recording is excellent.

The well-filled disc, however, offers more—and music in widely different styles. The brief Siguiriya is a setting of three Lorca poems, after Munch’s The Scream . Running under four minutes in total, this seems longer. Not in the negative sense—although the more conventional 12-tone style makes demands on the a capella chorus that occasionally sound rather like modern-music clichés—rather that there is clearly a lot going on in the Lorca text, which, in the absence of the words, one can only assume was expertly handled in the composition. This work dates from 1968, half a lifetime from Le Cantique des Cantiques, which was premiered in 2004.

More in the spirit of the late 60s is Pintura del Mundo , after Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights , also 1968. This is a two-movement work of some 18 minutes. The first movement outstays its welcome slightly, but that might be put down only to tentativeness among the orchestral players. The stylistic differences with the works discussed above are surprising. Given that the pictures are packed with bizarre detail, it is slightly surprising that Steffens has opted to create mood rather than any sort of literal (do I mean literal?) representation of the images. It sounds as if the composer had heard the contemporary Ligeti works such as Lontano and, indeed, those of Scelsi, but I am not sure how frequently these composers’ works had been performed then and I would not want to overlook originality.

The disc opens with Guernica , after Picasso. It’s a superb opening—war planes approaching and an air-raid siren all brilliantly realized on full orchestra (and apparently planes printed all over the first page of the full score: see After a climax the solo viola enters, and the work takes on a more conventional manner. At first hearing, this was a disappointment; but on reacquaintance one can hear a procession of stylistic changes that are an interesting response to the subject. The work seems to get committed performances (as usual, I don’t have scores) and, if the viola is a trifle prominent in the mix, I daresay it was necessary.

Steffens clearly composes from the heart, but he has his head screwed on, too. The disc is worth acquiring for Le Cantique des Cantiques alone, but deserves to heard by anyone remotely interested in music of the last half century.

FANFARE: Jeremy Marchant

Various composers, most notably Scriabin have tried to translate music into colour and vice versa. The challenge of the next step when music portrays an image has been irresistible to a much larger range of composers. Music inspired by landscapes is one thing (I think of Hadley’s The Hills and Bax’s Tintagel) but what about music inspired by paintings? There are plentiful examples including Rachmaninov’s Toteninsel (Böcklin), Mussorgsky’s Pictures (Hartmann), Granados’s Goyescas and Louis Aubert’s Tombeau de Chateaubriand.

Walter Steffens was a composition student of the Busoni pupil Philip Jarnach in Hamburg. His Opera Under Milk Wood based on the ‘play for voices’ by Dylan Thomas was written for the BBC. He has for the last five decades been gripped by expressing paintings in music. There are more than a hundred such works based on paintings by Bosch, Rubens, Chagall, Picasso, Klee, Munch, Aubertin, Soto, Penck and Schumacher.

His music is au fait with dissonance but this is not ultra-ivory tower material. His Guernica is an elegy which also picks up on his memories of the Allied bombing raids on his home cities of Aachen and Dortmund. It is hoarse, humming with abrasion and overarched at the start, by a siren. The viola is by no means a passive presence. It plots a raw course through the destruction and finally finds peace. The date of the recording is not given but given the hiss (for this track only) it must be analogue. The brief but intense Siguiriya is for mixed choir and draws on Munch and Lorca, images and poetry. The singing is densely volatile and flammably operatic. It can be heard as a violent counterpart to Penderecki’s Hiroshima Threnody. Pintura del Mundo starts with the peaceful but far from bland disposition of the closing pages of Guernica. This orchestral piece is tense; it groans and brays with horror. The Dialogue first movement tends towards stasis. The chittering and birdsong of Bosch’s nightmare insects and feathered horrors can also be heard. The music gathers wild pace in the second and last segment: Magog. The solo organ work, Le Cantique des Cantiques is the most extended piece here at some forty minutes. Marc Chagall’s ‘Song of Songs’ is the inspiration. It is complex and emotional, dignified, awed and occasionally shuddering with horror or wild-eyed with growing hysteria (part V, tr. 11, 6:33); not that there isn’t a great deal of gentle and calming music. The idiom is not particularly difficult if you are comfortable with Messiaen. Friedhelm Flamme is the organist. He has already made many CDs for CPO in his survey of North German baroque organ music. For the same label he also recorded organ works by Duruflé and Langgaard.

The movements of Le Cantique des Cantiques are:-

Prolog: Sch'ma Israel (Höre, Israel) 6:17 (Hear, O Israel / 5. Moses 6,4-9)
I. Nordwind erwache! Südwind herbei! 4:08 (Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south / The Song of Songs 4.16)
II. Ich schlafe, aber mein Herz wacht 9:48 (I sleep, but my heart waketh / The Song of Songs 5.2)
III. Am Tage seiner Hochzeit 3:46 (In the day of his espousals / The Song of Songs 3.11)
IV. Zieh mich mit dir, jauchzen wir und jubeln 5:59 (Draw me, we will run after thee: we will be glad and rejoice in thee / The Song of Songs 1.4)
V. Stark wie der Tod ist die Liebe 10:17 (Love is strong as death / The Song of Songs 8.6).

The sung words are not printed in the leaflet. This is a good foldout effort with an essay by Christopher Zimmermann.

Steffens takes with utmost seriousness the transcribing of music from paintings. The results are fascinating and can hold the attention without fore-knowledge that what you hear began as something seen by the composer.

-- Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: May 25, 2010

  • UPC: 790987708425

  • Catalog Number: LAB 7084

  • Label: Labor Records

  • Number of Discs: 1